WASHINGTON - Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel Friday in the Hunter Biden probe, a surprise move that intensifies the investigation into the president's son ahead of the 2024 election.
Garland noted the "extraordinary circumstances" of the matter as he named David Weiss, the U.S. attorney in Delaware who had already been probing Hunter Biden's financial dealings, as special counsel after plea deal talks in the case broke down.
The sudden turn of events raises fresh questions about the case against Hunter Biden on tax evasion and a gun charge, deepening an investigation that was close to resolution just weeks ago. Weiss had asked to be named special counsel, gaining broad authority to investigate and report out his findings.
It comes as the Justice Department has taken the unprecedented step of indicting former President Donald Trump, who’s President Joe Biden’s chief rival in next year’s election, in two separate cases. It also puts questions about Biden’s family at the forefront of the 2024 presidential election.
Speaking at the Justice Department, Garland said he expects the special counsel to work expeditiously in an "even-handed and urgent" manner.
FILE-Attorney General Merrick B. Garland speaks at a press conference at the Department of Justice on December 06, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Garland said Weiss, who had been appointed by Trump as U.S. attorney, told him this week the investigation had reached a stage in which he should continue as special counsel.
"Upon considering his request, as well as the extraordinary circumstances relating to this matter, I have concluded it is in the public interest to appoint him as special counsel," Garland said.
The announcement of a special counsel is a significant development from the typically cautious Garland and provides Weiss with independence, authority and budget to pursue the investigation.
It's not fully clear why the attorney general took the step in appointing a special counsel for the Hunter Biden case, but prosecutors in Delaware also announced Friday that plea deal talks Weiss was pursuing in the tax evasion case had hit an impasse.
In a court filing Friday, Weiss' team said charges would be better filed in California or Washington. Though Garland has said Weiss always had the authority to file outside Delaware, the venue may have been a factor in his request to be named special counsel.
Hunter Biden, son of President Joe Biden, arrives at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C., US, on Sunday, June 25, 2023. (Julia Nikhinson/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Nevertheless, the announcement ensures the Justice Department's probes of Trump, and now of Biden's youngest son, who used drugs and whose personal entanglements have trailed his father’s political career, will carry into election season.
The federal cases differ significantly: Trump has been indicted and is awaiting trial in two separate cases brought by special prosecutor Jack Smith. One is over Trump's refusal to turn over classified documents stored at his Mar-a-Lago estate. The other involves charges of fraud and conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election in the run up to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
In the case of Hunter Biden, the president has not been accused or charged with any wrongdoing by prosecutors probing the affairs of his son.
Hunter Biden’s attorney Chris Clark said little has changed about their understanding of the situation and the prosecutor’s role.
"Whether in Delaware, Washington, D.C., or anywhere else, we expect a fair resolution not infected by politics," Clark said in a statement.
President Biden has said repeatedly he does not talk with his son about business.
Trump's team on Friday questioned the independence of the special counsel Weiss, who he himself had appointed. But a Trump spokesman said the prosecutor should move quickly, and anyone found with wrongdoing "should face the required consequences."
Mike Pence, another Republican rival for the presidency in 2024, told reporters at the Iowa State Fair that he welcomed the special counsel appointment — as he made his own dig at the Biden family.
"To be honest with you, I can’t relate to what his son was doing when he was vice president," said Pence, who served alongside Trump. "When I was vice president, my son was flying an F35 in the Marine Corps defending this country."
Garland said Weiss will have "all the resources he requests" to probe the matter.
Last month, Hunter Biden’s plea deal over tax evasion and a gun charge collapsed after U.S. District Court Judge Maryellen Noreika, who was appointed by Trump, raised multiple concerns about the specifics.
House Republicans had derided that agreement as a "sweetheart" deal as they pushed their own probe into Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
House Republicans have been struggling to connect the son’s work to his father, and so far they have not been able to produce evidence to show any wrongdoing.
Rep. James Comer, the Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee, has been leading the congressional inquiry into Hunter Biden’s financial ties and transactions.
Comer joined forces with two chairmen of powerful House committees to launch a larger investigation into claims by two IRS agents who said the Justice Department improperly interfered in the yearslong case.
The Republicans claimed Weiss was being blocked from becoming a special counsel. It's a claim Weiss and the Justice Department denied.
The Kentucky lawmaker has obtained thousands of pages of financial records from various members of the Biden family through subpoenas.
Since then, Comer has brought in a former business associate of Hunter Biden, Devon Archer, who provided fresh insight during closed-door testimony into how the Democratic president’s son capitalized on his relationship with his father, who was then vice president, to court foreign investors.
Archer said Hunter Biden was using the "illusion of access" in Washington. But he offered no tangible evidence that Joe Biden played any role in his son’s work beyond saying hello during their daily family calls or as he stopped by a couple of dinners.
Comer joined other Republicans Friday in rejecting the appointment of a special counsel, calling it a "coverup" by the Justice Department, and vowed to continue his own probe.
Special counsels are typically appointed to investigate cases where the Justice Department perceives itself as having a conflict or where it’s deemed to be in the public interest.
As special counsels, they aren’t subject to day-to-day supervision from the Justice Department, though they are still overseen by the attorney general. They have a budget and, unlike most prosecutors, are expected to produce a report at the end of their investigations explaining their findings and decisions.
Weiss was nominated by Trump to serve as Delaware U.S. attorney in 2017 and was retained after Biden took over so he could continue to oversee the Hunter Biden investigation.
Associated Press writers Farnoush Amiri and Nomaan Merchant in Washington and Hannah Fingerhut in Des Moines contributed to this story.